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Monday, February 25, 2013

Strawberries:


Strawberries are the most popular berry fruit in the world.  A member of the rose family,  strawberries are what are called an aggregate accessory fruit.  That means that fleshy part is not from the plant's ovaries but from the receptacle that holds the ovaries.  Each "seed" on the outside is actually one of the ovaries of the flower with a seed inside.

Ancient Roman literature mentions strawberries for medicinal purposes.  The Strawberry is found in European Art and Literature symboloizing perfect righteousness.  The entire strawberry plant was used to treat depressive illnesses.

I remember seeing my uncle in the family store culling through pints of strawberries picking out the very best for a customer.  Strawberries are very perishable and no respectable produce man will trash a whole pint just for the sake of one or two bad berries. I culled many pints during my career.  The first time I went to a "You pick-um" place,  it was on Long Island to pick some strawberries.    More recently I remeber when "Strawberry Shortcake" dolls and accessories  were the rage.    My wife and I decorated our daughter's room in "Strawberry Shortcake".  It was complete with "Strawberry Shortcake" wallpaper and a window seat.

 Strawberries are ranked among the 50 best antioxidant sources among commonly eaten foods.  It is fourth among all fruits (behind  blackberries, cranberries, and raspberries).  Strawberries have a unique combination of  antioxidant and anti-inflammatoray nutrients.  Reasearch shows health benefits in cardiovascular support and prevention of cardiovascular disease, improved regulation of blood sugar with decreased risk of type 2 diabetes, and prevention of certain cancer types including breast, cervical, colon, and esophogeal cancer. 

Commercially grown strawberries are available almost year round.  Peak season is April through July.  Strawberries can be grown almost anywhere in the world.  If you'd like to try your had at growing your own, the best time to plant is in the late summer or spring.  Plant in full sun with somewhat sandy soil.  The addition of manure and balanced fertilizer aids strong growth.  They can be planted in pots or special planters using compost.  Moisture is essential during fruit formation.  The fruit matures in midsummer.  Pick when it is a uniform bright red color.  Strawberries do not ripen after they have been harvested.

Strawberries should be purchased just a few days prior to use.  Choose berries that are firm, plump, free of mold with shiny deep red color and attached green caps.  Do not wash berries until just before use.  Remember, they do not ripen after they have been picked.    Consume either fresh or in prepared foods such as preserves, fruit juice, pies, ice cream, milkshakes, and chocolates. 

So...... Eat up!  Enjoy!  I'll show you how.                              

Monday, February 18, 2013

Avocados

Avocados:


The avocado is a tree native to Central America classified in the flowering plant family with cinnamon, camphor, and bay laurel.  The avocado is also called the alligator pear.  The avocado is a climacteric fruit like the banana.  This means it matures on the tree, but ripens off the tree.  The fruit is actually a large berry with a single seed.

The oldest evidence of avocados was found in a cave in Mexico that dates back to around 10000 BC.   Avocados grow  well in warm climates.   It is common knowledge that Mexican and southwestern cooking include a lot of avocados, but they have actually become very popular in the Far East.  The French eat lots of avocados.  Europeans discovered avocados when Cortez arrived in the Americas in the sixteenth century.

We did not eat avocados when I was growing up.  My earliest remembrance of an avocado is when in my twenties I was diagnosed with having a bad gall bladder.  The doctor told me to avoid fatty foods and avocados.  That didn't bother me too much,  because I didn't eat avocados anyway.   The reason  for avoiding avocados was of course because of their high fat content. 

The avocado has a much higher fat content than most other fruits, mostly monosaturated fat.  Consequently,  it is a staple in areas where access to other fatty foods is limited. It is also popular in vegetarian cuisine as a meat substitute.   The most common varieties of avocados are Bacon, Fuerte, Gwen, Hass, Pinkerton, Reed, and Zutano.   The Hass variety is the most common  avocado grown.  It produces fruit all year long and accounts for 80%  of cultivated avocados in the world.   The main  growing area for avocados in the U. S. are California and Florida.

Generally the avocado is served raw.  It contains 20 essential nutrients. About 75% of the avocados calories come from fat, most monosaturated fat.  Avocados are also high in potassium, rich in B vitamins, and also vitamin E and vitamin K.   In one preliminary study a diet high in avocados lowered cholesterol in just 7 days.

Select avocados that are slightly soft with no dark sunken spots or cracks.  A firm avocado will ripen in a paper bag or in a fruit bowl at room temperature.  Avocados should not be put in the refrigerator until they are ripe.  To peel, cut the avocado lengthwise around the pit and rotate the two halves in opposite directions.   Gently put a spoon under the tip of the pit and it should easily come out.   Once cut,  the avocado's flesh will naturally start to turn brown from exposure to air.  To prevent this natural darkening sprinkle the avocado flesh with lemon juice.

Avocados are usually grown indoors in pits.  To start your own plant remove the pit from an unrefrigerated ripe avocado.  Then stab the pit with 3 or 4 toothpicks about one third of the way up.  The pit should then be placed in a jar or vase with tepid water.  In 4 to 6 weeks the pit should split and yield roots and a sprout.  Once the stem has grown a few inches it should be place in a pot with soil  and watered every few days.  Repot the plant as it outgrows it current pot.

To enjoy use chopped avocados as a garnish for black bean soup.   Add avocado to a creamy tofu-based dressing recipe for extra richness and a beautiful color.  Spread ripe avocado on bread as a healthy replacement for mayonnaise.  Mix chopped avocado, onions, tomatoes, cilantro, lime juice and seasonings for a rich tasting twist on traditional guacamole.

So eat up!  Enjoy!  I'll show you how.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Mushrooms:


The term "mushroom" derives from the French "mousseron" in reference to moss.  Mushrooms are a low calorie food usually eaten cooked, raw and as garnish to a meal.  Mushrooms are used extensively in many cuisines, notably Chinese, Korean, European, and Japanese.  They are known as the "meat" of the vegetable world.

Most mushrooms sold in supermarkets are commercially grown on mushroom farms.  Dietary mushrooms are a good source of B vitamins, such as riboflavin, niacin, and pantothenic acid, and essential minerals selenium, copper, and potassium.  Fat, carbohydrate, and calorie contents are low with absence of vitamin C and sodium.  Mushrooms that have been exposed to ultrviolet light contain large amounts of vitamin D2.  There are approximately 20 caloaries in an ounce of mushrooms.

A number of mushrooms are poisonous although some resemble certain edible species.  Consuming them could be fatal.   Gathering mushrooms in the wild should only be undertaken by persons knowledgeable in mushroom identification.  Everyone else should obtain their mushrooms from the local supermarket or store.

Psilocybin mushrooms possess psychodelic properties.  Commonly called "shrooms", they are openly available in many parts of the world and on the black market in countries that have outlawed their sale.  Psilocybin mushrooms are reported as facilitating profound and life changing insights described as mystical experiences.  They are being studied for their ability to help people suffering from psychological disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder.  Minute amounts have been reported to stop cluster and migrane headaches.

Mycophagy, the act of consuming mushrooms dates back to ancient times.  The first reliable evidence of  consumption of mushrooms dates back several hundred years BC in China.  Chinese value mushrooms for medicinal properties as well as food.  Ancient Romans and Greeks used mushrooms for culinary purposes.

I first remember eating mushrooms in a restaurant with my grandmother and an aunt.  I didn't know what they were and kept asking, "Is this a mushroom?"  I decided I liked mushrooms and have been eating them ever since.  In the store mushrooms used to come wrapped with blue tissue paper in a small wooden basket with a wire handle.    It was kind of distinctive and I always thought the basket would be good as a picnic basket.

Over 20 species of mushrooms are commerically cultivated.  The six most common are Chanterelle, prized for its fruity aroma; White, the most common and the mildest flavor;  Oyster, velvety trumpet shaped with a peppery taset.  The smallest are the best.  Portobello, up to 6 inches across with a steak-like taste.  Remove the woody stems before eating.  Shitake, meat to dark brown umbrella like caps with a distinctive smoky flavor.  The stems are too tough to eat but can be used for flavoring then discarded.  Cremini, similar to the white but with a firm texture and deeper flavor.  They are immature portobellos.

Choose firm unblemished mushrooms with a tight underside.  Keep mushrooms in either plastic or paper bags.  Plastic should have a few holes to allow some air to circulate.  You can rinse dirty mushrooms,  but usually a good wipe with a damp paper towl will do. 

You can bake, broil, fry, grill, puree, saute, steam or just eat raw.  Mushrooms go with just about anything.

So eat up!  Enjoy!  I'll show you how.



Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Pomegranate:


The pomegranate is fruit-bearing deciduous shrub or small tree that grows between 16-26 feet tall.  It is native to present day Iran and Iraq.  Today it is widely cultivated throughout the Mediterranean region of southern Europe, the Middle East, northern Africa and tropical Africa, and the Indian Subcontinent.  It is also extensively grown in South China and the drier parts of Southeast Asia.  It was introduced into Latin America and California by Spanish settlers in 1769.  It is currently cultivated in parts of California and Arizona.  Thomas Jefferson planted pomegranates at Monticello in 1771.

The name "pomegranate" comes from the Latin for apple (pomum) and seeded (granatum)  There are over 500 varieties.  The edible fruit of the pomegranate is a berry and is between a lemon and a grapefruit in size with a rounded hexagonal shape with a thick redish skin.  Pomegranates are used in cooking, baking, for juices, smoothies, and alcoholic beverages.  In the Northern Hemisphere it is typically in season from September to February.  In the Southern Hemisphere it is in season from March to May. 

The pomegranate is ripe with cultural symbolism.  Ancient Egyptians regarded it as a symbol of prosperity and ambition.  The Greek myth of Persephone, the goddess of the Underworld, prominently features the pomegranate. The number of seeds she is said to have eaten determined the number of barren seasons.  Among the Greeks it is traditional for a house guest to bring a pomegranate as a first gift, which is placed under or near the home altar.  Pomegranates are also prominent at Greek weddings and funerals.  In ancient Israel scouts brought promegranates to Moses to demonstrate the fertility of the "promised land".  In Christianity the fruit broken or bursting open is a symbol of the fullness of Jesus's suffering and resurrection.  In China in older times the pomegranate was considered an emblem of fertility and numerous progeny.   Growing up I rarely ate a pomegranate, but I do remember we called them "Chinese Apples".

Research has found pomegranates may be effective in reducing heart disease factors.  They not only reduce cholesterol, but  lower blood pressure and increase the speed at which heart blockages melt away.  Pomegranates are loaded with antioxidants.  A glass of pomegranate juice has more antioxidanats than red wine, green tea, blueberries, or cranberries.

The pomegranate is opened by scoring the skin with a knife and then breaking it open.  The arils (seed casings) are separated from the peel and internal white pulp membrane.  Separating the arils is easier in a bowl of water as the arils sink and the inedible pulp floats.  Freezing the whole fruit makes it easier to separate.  You can also cut the fruit in half and score the ouside rind 4-6 times.  Hold the half over a bowl and smack the rind with a large spoon.  In any case  do not get the juice on your clothes.  It stains terribly.

Choose pomegranates with unblemished skin that are heavy for their size.   The heavy pomegranate has lots of juice.  Store at room temperature for six to seven days.  Under refrigeration a pomegranate will last 3 months or more, if it is in good condition.

So eat up!  Enjoy!  I'll show you how.
 

Friday, February 1, 2013

Potatoes:


The potato is a starchy tuberous crop.   It is the world's fourth largest crop following rice, wheat, and maize.   There are about 5000 potato varieties worldwide.   The potato was first domesticated  in the region of modern day Peru and extreme northwestern Bolivia between 8000 and 5000 BCE.   What  we call sweet potatoes today actually are members of another family of plants and the yam is also different from the sweet potato.

The potato is best known for its carbohydrate content, predominantly starch, but humans can actually survive healthily on a diet of potatoes supplemented only with milk or butter which contain the two vitamins not provided by potatoes (vitamins A and D).  The potato contains vitamins, mineral and an assortment of phytochemicals.   Potatoes also contain toxic compounds known as glycoalkloids, as do eggplants and tomatoes.  The toxins affect the nervous system causing weakness and confusion.  The good news is the toxins are concentrated in the leaves, stems, sprouts, and fruits.  So, before cooking you'll want to remove  any sprouts or "eyes" as well as any green spots.

One of my first jobs in the grocery business was to remove eyes from potatoes.  It was at my grandfather's store where the potatoes would come in fifty pound bags.  If they were around a little too long the potatoes would start to sprout.  I would be assigned to "knock" the eyes off the potatoes to prepare them for display.  I was ten years old at the time, but many years later as a supermarket produce manager I was still knocking eyes off the potatoes when necessary.

Potatoes should be firm with relatively smooth skin and good color.   Look for only a few eyes  with no cuts, dark or soft spots, and no wrinkled or wilted skin.   Green skin indicates the potato has been exposed to light.  Cut away the green and knock off the eyes when preparing.   Potatoes like cool temps (45 to 50 degreesF.  Refrigeration, however, can turn starch into sugar  and may darken the potatoes when cooked.  Potatoes are best kept in the coolest, nonrefrigerated part of the house, away from light  and well ventilated.

Potatoes are prepared in many ways skin -on or peeled, whole or cut up, with seasonings or without.  The only requirement is cooking to swell the starch granules.  Most potatoes are served hot, but some are cooked then served cold such as potato salad and potato chips. 

There are about 100 varieties of potatoes sold in the U.S.   Each will fit into one of these seven type catagories.  I've also included their best uses.
Russett Potatoes:  baking, frying, mashing and roasting.
Red Potatoes:  roasting, mashing, salads, soup/stews.
White Potatoes:  mashing, salads, steaming/boiling, frying.
Yellow Potatoes:  grilling, roasting, mashing, salads.
Purple/Blue Potatoes:  roasting, grilling, salads, baking.
Fingerling Potatoes:  Zpan frying, roasting, salads.
Petite Potatoes:  salads, roasting, frying.

So eat up!  Enjoy!  I'll show you how.